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EXPLAINER: Reporting suicides

EXPLAINER: Reporting suicides

Monday 11 September 2023

EXPLAINER: Reporting suicides

Monday 11 September 2023


The Samaritans describe suicide as a “major public health concern” and “a subject that is very much in the public interest” which is why most media outlets aim to follow the charity’s reporting guidelines.

With Guernsey’s suicide rate seemingly higher than comparable jurisdictions, yesterday's Suicide Prevention Day offered a chance for charities and official organisations to further highlight the help available to those affected by suicidal thoughts.

It also coincided with the publication of the Bailiwick's new Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy just a few days earlier.

You can read about it HERE

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Pictured: The new mental health and wellbeing strategy was published last week. Read more about it HERE.

One recurring theme among people with concerns over their personal wellbeing, through to concerns over people suffering severe pyschotic episodes is that information signposting and talking to other people are both crucial to their recovery.

Dr Dominic Bishop, the Clinical Lead for Mental Health and Adult Disability across the Bailiwick said there is evidence that shows the majority of people who go on to take their own lives have not previously been connected with mental health services, nor have they reached for help or support.

The new strategy seeks to address that, and other areas of concern within the sector. 

Dr Bishop hopes to encourage people to reach out saying not only can it prevent suicidal thoughts escalating, but it can improve outcomes for people whatever mental health difficulties they're facing. 

However, while talking to someone else can help an individual deal with internal pressures affecting their mental health, it has also been proven that reporting of suicides can add to existing risks of an individual acting on harmful thoughts.

In light of the local statistics, which are explored HERE, we've re-read and have sought to follow the advice given by the Samaritans in covering this topic. 

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Pictured: Data released earlier this year showed there had been a rise in the number of people dying by suicide, but Dr Bishop said the statistics are skewed by the Bailiwick's small population.

When people die by suicide there is often media coverage in the form of tributes from their loved ones and hopes that future deaths can be prevented so following the Samaritans guidelines offers reporters a way to navigate and present the information available to them. 

Inevitably reporting the death of a loved one, especially when that death was unexpected, can cause great upset for family members.  

Following guidelines does not negate that upset and there is evidence that any reporting of suicides can lead to further deaths. However, the Samaritans say that stories can offer positive support to vulnerable people too. 

Stories can highlight that suicide is preventable and direct vulnerable people to sources of support. The Samaritans say that international research shows that when media guidelines are followed this has a positive effect by improving reporting standards. 

With Guernsey’s mortality report showing that there were 11 deaths due to suicide or injury of undetermined intent during 2021, the attempted prevention of any future deaths is to be embraced.  

Each life lost to suicide is described as “a tragedy” by the Samaritans.  That is also how Dr Bishop described deaths by suicide during an interview with Express last week.

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Pictured: Campaigns aimed at preventing suicides are often run to remind people how it is 'good to talk'.

The charity’s media reporting guidelines quote research which proves that certain types of media depictions, such as explicitly describing a method, sensational and excessive reporting, can lead to imitational suicidal behaviour among vulnerable people.  

One example given by the Samaritans is that in the five months following Robin Williams’ death in 2014, there were 1,841 more suicide deaths in the USA compared to the same time period from the previous year – a 9.85% rise. 

However, the charity also says that in contrast to encouraging imitational behaviour, coverage describing a person or character coming through a suicidal crisis can serve as a powerful testimony to others that this is possible andit can encourage vulnerable people to seek help. 

With that as the aim, the Samaritans’ media guidelines for reporting suicide offer practical advice on how to reduce the risk of media coverage negatively impacting on people who may be vulnerable. 

Media reporting of suicides is also covered in regulations and guidelines within the Ofcom Broadcasting Code and the Independent Press Standards Organisation’s (IPSO) Code. 

There is in short, a fine line to tread between accurately reflecting the facts and intruding on the grief of relatives and friends of those who have died.  

Mistakes are made in this area – the question of whether something is 'in the public interest', as opposed to whether 'the public are interested in it' can lead to details being published which in hindsight should not be.  

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Pictured: Express reporters follow guidelines drawn up by the Samaritans when reporting on suicides. 

Sub-clauses have been added to the IPSO code with additional clarification included to reflect changing tastes and the widespread use of social media.  

One of the most important aspects of the Samaritans guidelines is the often repeated insistence that suicide is preventable.  

The charity says stories can highlight that suicide is preventable and direct vulnerable people to sources of support.  

“We know from international research that when media guidelines are followed this has a positive effect by improving reporting standards,” states the charity’s website.  

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